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Revolutionizing transit: A blueprint for small cities with big success

A small city in North Carolina is utilizing grants and innovation to make on-demand ride services more affordable.
Revolutionizing transit: A blueprint for small cities with big success
Posted at 2:46 PM, Nov 21, 2023

Public transportation is never a money-maker for cities that have it — yet they find it a necessary need for their residents. So how do you make sure that transportation is accessible for all?

Inside a calm doctor's office in North Carolina is a shining crackle of energy from New York. Bill Hunter was raised in the biggest city in America. He now lives in Wilson, the 23rd largest city in its state.

"And I used to tease my cousins and relatives, it's only 7 million people in the state of Carolina. There's over 7 million people in Brooklyn," Hunter said.

Hunter's numbers may be off, but he's a fitting interview subject because a company out of the Big Apple is behind the latest innovation in Hunter's new home. When Hunter leaves work, he will ride with Catina. She drives one of Wilson's city-run rideshare vans. He'll call it the way you'd call an Uber, and he'll pay $2.50.

Places nationwide are experimenting with microtransit. Rather than going to a bus stop or train station, you call the equivalent of a cab for roughly the same price. It's the kind of idea that might not be required in America's big cities, but felt essential to leaders in Wilson.

SEE MORE: Lyft launches program that connects drivers and riders of same gender

Gronna Jones is transportation manager for a city with 47,000 people spread over 32 square miles. 

"What you find in a small southern town like Wilson is bus ridership is tied to your economic status, your race, that kind of thing. So, everybody that rode the bus were considered the poor," Jones said.

Wilson used to run a regular bus schedule. Jones says they averaged 3,500 riders a month. With microtransit, they average more than 4,000 riders a week.

To hear Bill Hunter, those rides are why he still works.

"I've had a stroke, and it affected my vision. If I was driving, I'd blindside someone, or vice versa," Hunter said.

The vans can reach more riders and cover the entire city. That's the pitch. 

Here's the catch:

"Well, it's not profitable. Not at all. Wilson's transportation system has never been profitable. It's just a service that the city wants to provide its citizens," Jones said.

The van system has survived so far off grants and a tight budget that's not much different than before. And it's still young. The more popular it becomes, the more vans, the more drivers, the more money it will require.

Bill Hunter knows he's got a ride home. And he says the rides add to what he loves about his new city — many miles from his old one.

"Here I am in Wilson, North Carolina, and it's nice. The people are nice," Hunter said, "I really like Wilson."

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